The three bodily rights

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A massage shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand


1. The right to health

It may seem a truism to regard health as a right, but for people the world over health has been anything but the norm. For millennia past until modern times, starvation or malnutrition was the rule for the vast majority, as it still is today in many locales, which includes pockets of the US, where poverty confines people to a harmful carbohydrate-based junk food diet. More momentously, the manmade famines in the Soviet Union and China in the mid-20th century alone, totaling some 60-75 million deaths, belie the notion that civilization has advanced much at all. If it has, it could easily slip back into barbarism. Predictions of manmade ecological catastrophe in the foreseeable future may return us to something even worse: the global collapse of agriculture.

Provided there was enough to eat, the diet in most countries was more healthful in the past than it is today. Meat was free of steroids and antibiotics, fruit and vegetables free of pesticides, and the scourge of sugar — the most widely abused drug of all time — had not yet taken off on an industrialized scale. I don’t just refer to sugar in the obvious senses (candy, pastries, soft drinks) but in all its varieties (refined starchy foods, processed foods, canned foods, alcohol). There are few people today whose daily diet does not consist in a complex confection of sugary foods. The inevitable outcome is the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer, the “diseases of civilization,” of which sugar and the sedentary lifestyle are increasingly deemed to be the major causes. Think you’re not addicted to sugar? Try going one day wholly without it (here’s the latest on the all-powerful sugar lobby).

The advanced nationalized health industries of the modern democracies, that is, most European countries, Canada, Australia, etc. (but notably not the US), represent a laudable advance in bodily rights and freedom — the right to affordable medical care and freedom from financial disaster due to medical expenses. Yet it’s ironic that these industries have in effect arisen in response, as if to catch up, to the epidemic of sugar-induced disease. Somebody has to take care of the vast middle-aged sick, and the State has thankfully stepped in. What can be said is that a lifetime diet free of sugar would dramatically reduce the need for medical care to begin with across the population. Even a reduction of per capita sugar intake to say, pre-20th century levels, would radically ameliorate the extent of disease. Some claim a meat-free diet could achieve the same benefits, but this only applies if not compromised by sugar intake. I myself would opt for the seafood-based traditional Japanese diet, said to be the world’s healthiest before widespread contamination of the oceans with heavy metals and toxins.

Freedom from harmful food requires more than the State’s intervention to treat the bodily damage already done. It requires education as well, and this few societies provide. I am not aware of any country that offers public school students at the primary or secondary levels systematic and comprehensive training in health and nutrition. If there is such a country, I want to know. It would also have to include thorough, real sex education, consisting in detailed, biologically grounded instruction in sexual health in order to know how to recognize and prevent STIs.

The reason for the general lack of education in sex, health and nutrition is well known. Big Medicine’s monopoly on knowledge, along with Big Pharma’s monopoly on addictive drugs and Big Sugar’s monopoly on addictive food, would all be threatened by a medically informed citizenry.

The right to health is also the right to sexual health. The State’s institutionalization of the body and sexuality extends, as religion formerly did and continues to do, to numerous injunctions and prohibitions: whether and under what conditions abortion is permitted, whether sex outside of heterosexual matrimony is even allowed, at what age teenagers may legally enter into sexual relationships of their own choosing, etc. Progress has been made in recent decades, such as for gay and transgender rights, but not everywhere. Most of the world’s population live in traditionalist, backward societies, where sexual deviance is pressed out through repression and then punished severely, in some countries with death. Even in more lenient societies, China for example, things are now only comparatively better than they used to be. State brutality has given way to gentler forms of enforcement and indoctrination. In the Qing Dynasty as during the Cultural Revolution a mere four decades ago, adultery was punishable by death. Today this is no longer the case, as the State effectively relies on people to police themselves (though one can still lose one’s job in the public sector for adultery, as one also can in the US), and people tend to do a very good job at policing themselves when it comes to sex.

It’s a fallacy to separate sex and health; they belong to the same right, one that admittedly is not permitted to everyone. Or we should say, sex is permitted in all societies, indeed enforced, but often under rigidly specified conditions, less restrictive in some cultures, more so in others (these conventions are breaking down in places like present-day India and China with their large surplus populations of males who will never find a wife and whose sexual experience is confined to prostitutes). But while sex is a matter of health, the idea of sexual “rights” or “freedom” in and of itself is too nebulous to pin down. For many Muslim and African women, the right not to have their clitoris cut off and their vagina sewn up would be an affirmation of their sexual rights, or a significant form of sexual freedom. In more developed societies, the right to lose one’s virginity outside of marriage and not suffer ostracization is a mark of sexual freedom. In still others, the right to engage sexually with multiple partners (or not) constitutes sexual freedom.

In all societies single women have it the worst. Women who lead independent sex lives are made to feel horrible by those around them, labeled as “bad” or whatever the local language’s term for “promiscuous” or “slut” happens to be. This is merely a more subtle form of ideological violence — psychological violence — directed against bodily freedom. Consider yourself lucky if your society gives you relative freedom from not only physical sexual violence but the psychological violence of sexual prohibitions. The sexual equivalent of affordable availability of a healthful and varied diet is the practice of polyamory: the ready availability of multiple, simultaneous loving and sexual relationships — for those who prefer this to the narrower option of monogamy.

2. The right to nudity

North Americans (namely US citizens, less so Canadians; Mexicans I’m not sure about) are the ones most likely to scorn and ridicule the idea that it could actually be a human right to be naked outside one’s residential confines. On the contrary, such Americans commonly affirm their right to be free from the sight of naked bodies, which are by definition ugly unless young and of fine physique. The naked body in this parochial view is either highly sexualized and frightening or decrepit and offensive; there is no alternative conception. The social power of these negative attitudes is such that even breastfeeding mothers are reluctant to expose their nipple in relatively enlightened New York City, where public nudity is legally permitted (though nobody dares go naked). It’s indeed telling as much as it is incomprehensible that no other country in the world is as intolerant of public breastfeeding as the United States.

I was recently on the bus through the Laos countryside between Luang Prabang and Vientiane when, passing through a mountain village, I saw a woman standing by the roadside in a makeshift shower with nothing on but her sarong, as she poured water over her naked breasts and looked up at us in the bus with complete nonchalance (we came upon her too suddenly for me to snap a picture). Laos is a traditional society and not exactly known as sexually progressive, yet in this one respect they are freer than the rest of us in the developed world, except perhaps northern Europe, which expresses the freedom to be naked in public in other ways, the Germans in particular, but also the Scandinavians and Finns (and I believe the Russians too), all of whom entertain family and friends of both sexes naked in the sauna, children and adolescents permitted as well. One reason public nudity is allowed and encouraged in some societies is to short-circuit the cultural sexualization of the body which other societies rely on to confine, control and repress sexuality.

When I lived in Germany in the 1970s, I was invited to go skinnydipping with my male and female high school classmates, a popular activity. TV series directed at teenagers contained full-frontal nudity, as a completely natural form of social interaction. It was not out of the ordinary for families to go naked in the house. Young women typically went braless in shirts open on the sides that exposed the breasts when bent forward (and which Tacitus notably described as a dress feature of Germanic women 2,000 years ago). This was not to seduce males but to allow the breasts to be unbound and unencumbered. It was also an act of sexual equality, giving girls the same right to show off their chest as boys (on proudly displaying your breasts).

Some of these practices have been ground away under the corrosive influence of puritanical Hollywood and media-disseminated US culture (already the TV series Dallas was enthralling the Germans when I was there), along with the infantilizing of the adult female body by shaving the erotic body hair from the legs, underarms and pubes. Thankfully, the respect among the Germans for social nudity is still safely entrenched. Not just public beaches but many parks in cities (including the famous Englischer Garten in central Munich) allow full nudity, enthusiastically partaken of the masses. The question is not whether foreign visitors are offended by this. On the contrary, it’s the gawking clothed that are offensive, particularly those who insist on shooting photos or video instead of joining in.

There is no argument against public nudity. There is only the futile question as to why it’s not universal. However, while Germany is perhaps the most enlightened country in this respect, it’s not necessarily equally sexually enlightened (it can’t beat Thailand on massage, though some Germans are known to practice Tantric sex massage, according to a magazine article I once read). Indeed, I would point out the paradox that the taboo against any show of sexuality is never stronger than in the domain of public nudity. Until we evolve to a more sexually enlightened society, the two are simply too volatile to co-occur anywhere. This is particularly the case where nudity is allowed in the US — the handful of naked beaches (carefully cordoned off from the clothed sections) and private nudist resorts scattered about the country in those states where it’s permitted. Males’ morbid fear of getting an involuntary erection amidst fellow nudists is one of the reasons scaring off so many from trying them out.

I have long believed that many more people would go naked than is normally supposed — for the sake of the simple freedom of it, for others the sheer pleasure of showing off their body — if only they had the chance. It’s not so much oneself as reluctance to embarass others that holds people back. Another paradox is that what rightly belongs to individual expression is occasioned and celebrated in artistic expression, such as the dance troupe of naked women I once stumbled upon out on the street in San Francisco. In Shanghai, an artist friend of mine has staged “spontaneous” nude events with fellow females in a teahouse owned by a Mosuo woman (a matriarchal ethnicity in western China where females traditionally take on many lovers).

Nudity is an expression of honesty and that’s why it should be vigorously advocated. There is an wonderful openness of character to people who invite you to be naked with them. We all expect nakedness of the face. Who feels comfortable with someone you’re meeting for the first time who refuses to take off his or her sunglasses? If you’re out in bright sunshine, fine, but eventually you need to see the person’s face. Similarly, we want to see the “face” of the body. The most diehard American nudophobics would probably not be scandalized at the sudden appearance of a hot and sexy naked body (as long as the kids aren’t around). The challenge is to extend and democratize this acceptance to everyone, including the unshapely and bodies ravaged by age. Aren’t old people’s bodies reassuring in their own way? They’re telling you, “You’ll arrive at this point in due time, and when that comes you’ll be happy to know you will still be going strong like us!”

3. The right to massage

As I wrote in my book Massage and the Writer: Essays on Asian Massage, massage is unique and fascinating in its very ambiguity: it can either imply sex or not. If it is allowed to flourish. That’s the initial question for analysis: whether commercial massage services are allowed, and what form these are permitted to take. Widespread ignorance and intolerance regarding massage is the norm in the US, although in recent years I seem to be seeing a liberalizing of these attitudes and an upsurge in massage businesses in some cities. Still, many people automatically associate massage with prostitution, a massage parlor being nothing but a brothel in disguise. Legitimate, i.e., therapeutic, massage businesses have to distinguish themselves all the more sharply from the stereotype by constantly stressing the nonsexual nature of the genuine massage arts and traditions.

In reality, sexual touching does occur in much massage practice, except where fear of police intervention is so keen the impulse is thoroughly stifled (prosecution by entrapment — e.g., when an undercover female cop asks her masseuse to massage her breasts and is arrested for prostitution — is a very real worry among massage therapists in the U.S.). But then what’s the point? When massage forbids even mild erotic contact on pain of arrest, what sort of paltry, attenuated affair remains? Nothing but therapeutic massage, of course. But it’s a “therapeutic” massage in terror of itself, of that one false slip onto the body’s illegal zones.

In some countries, commercial massage is more relaxed and liberal. The country where the practice been allowed to develop most fully and extensively is of course Thailand. All cities in this country have a plethora of massage services, but Pattaya and Chiang Mai stand out. Pattaya is notorious as Thailand’s most swinging “sin city,” to be compared not with Bangkok but Angeles in the Philippines. Chiang Mai, by contrast, is not known for the usual sex services (open-air bars, go-go bars, soapy massage). On the contrary, it tends to draw tourists who come to Thailand for exactly other reasons, the “culture” and laid-back atmosphere, with its scores of temples and orange-robed Buddhists strolling the streets.

Yet both cities crawl with massage shops, and they all operate along the same lines. There are so many of them there almost seems to something humorous at work, as if every time you think you’ve finally found a street free of them, yet another shop peeks out and says, “Hi there!” Some massage shops are shabbier and others more New Agey and luxurious (often labeled “spas”), but the prices regularly range from 300-500 Baht for a 60-minute oil massage (US $9-$15), along with a listing of other services (Thai massage, etc.) on the almost identical placard menus displayed on every shop front. The curious thing (and scary for some) about these shops is that you can never know beforehand whether a massage will be chaste or eroticized. This is precisely the charm of massage in Thailand and is the outstanding example of the form an elaborated massage industry takes.

To clarify one potential source of confusion for people who have not been to Thailand: when I speak of massage shops, I do not refer to the so-called “soapy massage” business. That’s an entirely distinct phenomenon, intended solely for male customers. The soapy massage palaces (as I call them) are impossible to mistake for ordinary massage shops. They are usually large, multistoried structures with brash Vegas-style facades, whereas massage shops are intimate, street-front affairs. In a soapy massage, you pick a girl with a number behind a window display. She attends to you and fucks you in a private room, after soaping you up with her naked body in a bathtub. You can find the same attraction in red-light districts in Japan, where it’s called “soap land,” along with a whole Internet niche devoted to X-rated videos of the same. As with prostitution generally, it’s a choreographed performance devoid of intimacy (and the marvelous ambiguity of massage), though if you pick a girl who smiles at you intensely it could mean she’s physically attracted to you, and that will enhance the experience. Still, it’s prostitution. The discussion that follows deals not with “massage” prostitution but exclusively with ordinary massage shops, which target both male and female customers for ostensibly nonsexual, therapeutic massage.

For your typical Thai oil massage treatment, you are invited to take off your clothes — yes, all of them — and lie face down on the mat or massage table. A towel is available for covering yourself (no fussy disposable shorts are provided as they are in most other Asian countries). Here we’re dealing with a special form of intimate social nudity, permitted in front of your masseuse. Male and female customers can both expect to be massaged all over the body (including the breasts), generally excepting the genitals. Some masseuses keep things consistently chaste; others can intuit when you want more and are happy to deliver it. For men, this may mean a laxer draping procedure, with the inner thighs worked closer to the groin, exposing your scrotum or allowing your erection to pop out of the towel. From there on it’s either a dance of repeated redraping or a sloughing off of the towel altogether. But even if you end up fully naked, she may not necessary sexualize the massage. Or she may, folding your penis into the treatment but not to the point of ejaculation; or she may proceed to drive things home and squeeze out your semen. In the latter case, she may ask you for a tip beforehand or afterwards, or not at all.

One Chiang Mai shop I visited had an English notice on its front entrance: “We only offer proper massage here. Please do not ask for anything else.” I didn’t ask for anything else. The masseuse, who was about 40, with an Asian version of Judy Garland’s eyes, dressed discreetly in a black shirt and blue sarong, gave me one of the most erotic massages I’ve ever had. She was also superbly skilled at massage. Though the polite massage industry would deny it, the best massage technicians push right up against the erotic, guided as they are by thoroughness. She didn’t ask for a tip; I gave her a generous one.

As for female customers, I’m sure they can experience the same drama on the massage table, though a bit more patience may be needed to scout out the right masseuse or masseur for this purpose, since sexism is still rife in the industry everywhere and female customers are assumed not to want any sexual attention or relief. I do see a lot of foreign women making use of the massage businesses in Thailand.

There is an interesting corollary between the quantity of massage shops and their quality. As noted, the industry is more fully elaborated in Thailand than anywhere else; the massage industries in other countries are imperfect and impoverished versions of the same. Massage is so ubiquitous in Thailand it gives the appearance of serving a kind of basic social need or function, like restaurants, convenience stores, public toilets, or one could even say, shrines. In most urban environments, one expects to be able to find something to eat, a drink or a coffee, or a place to pray, without having to venture too far on foot. In Thailand, massage is added to these necessities. If nothing else, the massive industry is economically fecund and provides added employment for the female population.

It is so prevalent one begins to form the conception of its being a human right: the right to step into the nearest shrine on the spur of the moment, shed one’s clothes and be attended to with loving oiled hands on your naked body; hands which with the right masseuse might yet express added affection on your more intimate zones, and if not, well there are hundreds more shrines in the vicinity each offering an equal chance of hitting it off with just the right priestess. If not the most essential of human rights, massage is an exquisite freedom wholly distinct from other bodily forms of contact including straight sex. If it’s defined as a type of sex work, it supplies precisely the intimacy you don’t get from prostitutes. One measure of a society’s overall extent of freedom, its repertoire of freedoms, is the availability on demand of this singular expression of erotic intimacy (I could alternatively have labeled this right the right to bodily intimacy on demand).

Ideally, we’d like to see the latter two rights — nudity and massage — combined. I recently heard of a yoga studio in New York City which operates fully nude. Massage should also be performed fully nude by both customer and masseuse, but alas this is not the case even in the paradise of Thailand. The reasons are predictable enough. Too many male customers couldn’t handle it and keep themselves from grabbing their masseuse. There’s an etiquette involved in the massage transaction which requires the customer to recognize his or her passive role, which is to be stimulated and not to stimulate (even while the open-ended nature of the practice encourages mutual stimulation with a willing masseuse). A whole generation of people would need to be educated about this more advanced development in the massage industry for it to catch on.

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Related posts:
Massaging the Yin-Yang in Pattaya
Coffee and massage in Burma
The breast etiquette project

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